HL Deb 24 February 1981 vol 417 cc974-6

2.48 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many local authorities in England and Wales have satisfied the Government's expenditure targets for 1980–81.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, I am not yet in a position to say what the out-turn figures for local authorities' expenditure in 1980–81 will be. We will have a preliminary indication for local government as a whole when the provisional returns are available in the spring, but a firmer indication will have to await examination of the revenue out-turn returns later in the year.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask him whether he can enlarge on it a little by simply saying whether he considers the position to be satisfactory?

Lord Bellwin

I can only refer to the budgets as such, my Lords, and say that our call for revised budgets led to savings of some £390 million. I hope the remaining excess from the £740 million will be substantially or completely eliminated at the out-turn, but we shall have to await the actual out-turn figures before we know.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, can my noble friend say what proposals he has for dealing with overspending authorities? Can he assure us that the formula for fixing the rates with local councils will be carefully considered and possibly readjusted next year?—since at present it seems that those councils which are lavish in spending taxpayers' and ratepayers' money benefit, while those councils which are excessively prudent are disadvantaged, and this is not the object of the formula.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, as my noble friend will surely know, under the arrangements as they have applied for the year 1980–81 the Secretary of State had no powers to be selective in the way that I think my noble friend would like. The position for 1981–82 is different, now that we have the new Act, and the Secretary of State will be able to be selective. Indeed, the new grant system affords certain opportunities, of which I am sure my noble friend is aware.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that while none of us would condone excessive expenditure, there comes a point when savings by local authorities on road cleaning and collection of rubbish could become a disadvantage to the country in terms of attracting tourists? Today, parts of Britain look like slums due to underspending on street cleaning.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, it is for each individual authority to answer for the position in its area. Each authority will decide its spending priorities. It is for each authority to decide whether road cleaning should be one of its priorities.

Lord Blyton

My Lords, does not the noble Lord consider that the Conservative Party should now stop lambasting local authorities? Local authorities have a job to do. The cuts are only reducing the social services to the working class people and the old age pensioners.

Lord Bellwin

No, my Lords, I do not accept that for one moment; nor do I accept that either the Conservative Party or the Government are lambasting local authorities as such. We are concerned to ensure that whatever money is spent we get the very best value. That has not always been the case, nor is it always the case. Secondly, we want to ensure that the amount that we spend is in keeping with what we can afford, both as a country as a whole and as individual areas.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that half the trouble arises from the fact that the rating system is now so unjust and so inequitable that we need a totally new system of collecting local taxes, so that democracy can be shown to be working and that the people who pay for it have some control over what goes on?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, that point is well away from the original Question. I should dearly love to cross swords with the noble Lord on the issue of the rating system as such, but this is not the occasion upon which to do so.

Baroness Gaitskell

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that even if in certain places the cuts are necessary, they always hurt people who are most vulnerable and who are usually the poorest members of the community?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I think I should say immediately that when we talk of cuts we usually mean cuts in the rate of growth and expansion, but in any case it is for each authority itself to decide what its priorities should be. If an authority has to reduce some of its spending, I would hope that the reduction would be in an area where it would have the least possible adverse effect on the citizens concerned. There are many opportunities with regard to spending if those who are concerned will take them.

Lord Heycock

My Lords, as one who has spent 42 years in local government, may I ask the Minister to tell us what is good value for money in local government?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, that is what happens when we deviate as far from the Question as we seem to be doing. I would merely say that in considering what is good value we should try to ensure that in all spending there is a pound-for-pound return. If the noble Lord has been in local government as long as he says he has, he will know better than most people that that rarely happens.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, does my noble friend still see room for economies if private enterprise is permitted to carry out more local authority services, which in America has been done both more economically and more efficiently?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, that point relates to one of the opportunities that every authority should be concerned about. Local authorities should be looking at the best way of doing things, whether through the private sector or in any other way. I should have thought that those who are concerned with these matters would be looking at the kind of arrangement that my noble friend suggests.